ERNIE & JOE: CRISIS COPS,
a Riveting Look at Innovative Police
Responses to Mental Health Crises Debuts November 19, Exclusively on HBO

HBO PR
HBO PR
Nov 5 · 4 min read
Photo: Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro (Credit: Courtesy of HBO). Please note this is a promotional photo for press only.

In San Antonio, Texas, a small team of police officers are responding to individuals going through mental health crises in an innovative way and putting compassionate policing practices into action with dramatically positive results. ERNIE AND JOE: CRISIS COPS follows Texas police officers Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro, who are part of the San Antonio Police Department’s thirteen member Mental Health Unit. Chronicling their daily and sometimes harrowing encounters with people in crisis, the documentary shows how their innovative approach to policing, which takes mental health into account, can help diffuse dangerous, potentially deadly situations and lead people to critical mental health services instead of jail — one 911 call at a time.

Directed by Jenifer McShane (“Mothers of Bedford”) and debuting TUESDAY, NOV. 19 (9:00–10:40 p.m. ET/PT), the film offers a verité portrait of the two partners and friends who share a unique bond and offers viewers an intimate glimpse into their personal lives.

The documentary will also be available on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners’ streaming platforms.

At a time when one in five Americans has a mental health diagnosis and police are often the first responders to individuals in crisis, ERNIE & JOE: CRISIS COPS shows how techniques like active listening, building rapport and using non-threatening body language are having dramatic effects on the way police respond to these challenges. During one of his first crisis intervention trainings, Officer Ernie Stevens was inspired to help establish the Mental Health Unit (MHU) after he recalled hearing from a mother who was afraid that one day an officer might have to shoot or kill her son with a mental illness. Hoping to prevent people with mental illness from being criminalized, the San Antonio Police Department started their mental health unit as a six-month pilot project and soon expanded from two to four officers, including Ernie’s partner, Officer Joe Smarro.

Ten years older than Joe, Ernie initially thought Joe was an arrogant kid when he first joined the MHU, but now says, “I hit the lottery,” having Joe as his partner. Ernie took Joe under his wing, and in turn became inspired by Joe to go back to college after 17 years to finish his BA. A combat veteran, Joe talks openly about his own struggles with depression and PTSD from his service in Iraq, which he manages through therapy and painting. They often divide who takes the lead on a call, with Joe handling situations involving veterans because he “speaks their language” as a former Marine, and Ernie handling calls involving kids because those are more difficult for Joe.

In addition to their MHU detail, Joe and Ernie do overtime shifts together, in which they catch up and decompress between calls with humor and small talk. On one nightshift, their usual banter is interrupted when a call comes in about a woman threatening to jump from a highway overpass. In dashcam footage, Ernie and Joe carefully approach and try to calm the distraught woman who says she’s a drug addict and is hearing voices. She tells the officers, “I’m broken!” “You might be broken,” says Ernie, “but you’re fixable.” Later, Joe and Ernie respond to a call involving a suicidal man in a parking lot who says he has a gun. Trying to connect with the young man, Joe shares his own history of childhood abuse and suicidal thoughts. Eventually removing the man’s gun and bringing him to an emergency treatment center, Joe says he realizes these are the first, crucial steps but wishes they could do more.

With the MHU starting to draw first responders from outside of Texas, all officers including police academy cadets in San Antonio are now required to take 40 hours of crisis intervention training. In trainings, student officers and volunteers role-play mental health crises, teaching important techniques in answering mental health calls. In one such training, Joe tells the story of trying to de-escalate a situation involving a suicidal woman in her driveway with a gun. The police had sent multiple heavily armed officers in traditional squad cars. But Joe was able to reach the woman on her cellphone and talk her into releasing the weapon, avoiding a dangerous escalation. As he recalls, “I didn’t think about ‘gun’… I thought about ‘person in crisis’.”

Regular follow-ups with the people they help are also a part of the MHU’s approach. Ernie and Joe visit the woman they saved from jumping off the highway overpass and are happy to see that she is doing well. But the path to long-term treatment and recovery is not always easy. Sometimes there are setbacks and they often wish they could do more. With a new approach to policing, come new challenges for the officers — but the MHU’s approach is clearly better than the alternative.

In addition to capturing Ernie and Joe at work, the film highlights the bond shared by the two men and their support of each other’s personal growth. Ernie and Joe’s passion for their work, combined with their deep rapport, makes clear the value of finding human connections during the most difficult times.

The film made its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival, where it received Special Jury Recognition.

ERNIE & JOE: CRISIS COPS was directed and produced by Jenifer McShane; executive produced by Andrea Meditch; cinematographer, E.J. Enriquez; editor, Toby Shimin; score by Tyler Strickland.

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